On Saturday, Oct. 13, the Red Bull Soapbox Derby pulls into Providence, Rhode Island, and when it does a design team from Falls Church will be careening down Waterman Street.
Among the finalists competing are five designers from Falls Church. The local team, dubbed WhatWorks, includes Jacob Cohen, the driver, plus mechanics Chris Bronz, Michelle Sadiarin, H. Robert Sullenberger and Michael Taft. They hail from Norfolk, Annandale, Reston and Annapolis.
The Providence race drew over 300 applicants, with only 59 making the final cut. Taft was surprised hearing about all the applicants.
“I’m flattered,” Taft says, with his teammate Bronz adding, “We did write up a pretty sarcastic and amusing application. They might have appreciated that.”
On that application, WhatWorks stated their credentials quite clearly.
“We’ve never built a soapbox racer before, but we’ve made beer before. How hard can it be?”
Sullenberger points to the corner of the workshop and indeed, there sits a jug of homemade beer. Point taken.
Besides being bound by the desire to build the best soapbox racecar in the northeast, all five team members attended James Madison University. Now graduates, they all work together at WhatWorks, a design firm dedicated to bringing interesting architectural and industrial design to the D.C. area, which they all agree is a “conservative” city in need of some creativity.
The team's entry into the race is a covered wagon roadster, based on the culturally iconic educational computer game “The Oregon Trail.”
“We were sketching out a couple ideas and the covered wagon idea come up,” says Bronz of the idea's original link to the game.
The premise of “Oregon Trail” is that the player is a pioneering family, trekking from Missouri to Oregon in a covered wagon. The player hunts for food and buys supplies at outposts, but usually dies of dysentery before reaching Oregon.
“It is pretty ubiquitous amongst our generation,” says Bronz.
While the game is no longer played in schools, it remains a cultural landmark.
“It’s probably not PC anymore,” Taft guesses.
There’s a reason for such creative quirkiness. Soapbox vehicles are judged on three factors: creativity, speed and showmanship, and not necessarily in that order. As for the latter category, WhatWorks will perform to the sound of Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo,” which should get the crowd’s attention. The song is better known as the peppy background music for beef advertisements.
There are some rules of the road for their wagon. Entries must run on people power, no batteries, engines, electric cords or rocket thrusters allowed — brakes, on the other hand, are a must. The vehicle can weigh no more than 176 lbs., not including the driver.
“We will be well under all the restrictions. We are designing for speed so we are considerably less than the weight limit,” says Bronz.
Winners enjoy, besides unabashed gloating, speed-themed prizes. First-place winners will be treated to a NASCAR experience, including flight, hotel, pit passes, a meeting with a driver and passes to a VIP party. An ultimate day of driving awaits the second place winners at the Tim O’Neil Rally School. Third-place racers will visit F1 Boston for a furious day of go-cart racing.
Onlookers at the race play a role as well, voicing their opinions via text message to determine the recipient of the People's Choice Award. The nature of this prize remains a mystery until race day.
At the top of the steep hill, it will be up to Cohen and Taft to bring home the gold, they are the co-pilots who will steer the car as it goes downhill, at a possible speed of 35 mph. Unfortunately, at the time of the interview Cohen was in the hospital with a broken foot. The news didn’t seem to worry the team, as it was not much of an obstacle. Since WhatWorks' shtick entails the team dressing up like a family of pioneers and running after deer and rabbits, they simply decided to make Cohen play the role of the wife, putting him in a dress so his caste won't show.
Sadiarin says with a smile, “We are highly optimistic about this.”
To learn more about “WhatWorks,” visit their MySpace page at www.myspace.com/designwhatworks.